Photo: Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, Ph.D., demonstrates the use of lidar to reveal ancient structures previously hidden from view (courtesy of Blakeway Productions/National Geographic).

Lidar, Lost Cities, & The Circular Economy Of The Future

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Lidar technology has come a long way since its invention in the 1960s. Aside from enabling self-driving cars to self-drive, it is a fixture in geologic activities including forestry, agriculture, and hazard assessment. Explorers are also deploying it to expose the remnants of ancient long-lost cultures. In the latest twist, the technology is beginning to emerge as a powerful force in the sustainable, circular economy of the future.

The Many Faces Of Lidar

Lidar is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging, sometimes capitalized as LiDAR. It’s similar to radar, but driven by light instead of sound. “Range” refers to variable distances measured from a pulsed laser, which can be combined with other data to produce images.

NOAA is among the science stakeholders making extensive use of the technology. “Lidar systems allow scientists and mapping professionals to examine both natural and manmade environments with accuracy, precision, and flexibility,” they explain. “NOAA scientists are using lidar to produce more accurate shoreline maps, make digital elevation models for use in geographic information systems, to assist in emergency response operations, and in many other applications.”

Ford and other automakers recognized the game-changing potential of lidar early on. The technology also dovetails with the age of drones, which has opened up new opportunities for humanitarian purposes as well as warfare, among uses (see more CleanTechnica coverage of here).

Lost Cities, Found

Lidar is also coming of age in the field of exploration. CleanTechnica had a chance to speak with National Geographic scientist and explorer Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, about the role of lidar in his new series, “Lost Cities Revealed with Albert Lin,” which is unspooling on NatGeo TV on November 23, to be followed by Hulu and Disney+ on the 29th.

“Exploration and technology are partnered,” Lin said, pointing out that Alexander Graham Bell was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society. “There is discovery to be made. Not everything has been found yet,” he added.

Lin’s far-ranging life experiences — including a Ph.D. in engineering — led him to connect with the archaeologist Thomas Garrison and teams of specialists who have been deploying airborne lidar technology to map tens of thousands of previously unseen Mayan structures, hidden by centuries of jungle overgrowth and decay. The work began in 2016 and continues to this day, leading to new discoveries of cultures and peoples.

“The first time I showed up in the jungle, I had all these engineering students and we had lidar and drones, and Tom is telling us, ‘everything around us is waiting to kill you.’ But, we could see the power of being able to punch through the canopy, particularly in the Maya world,” Lin recalled.

Resilience & Recovery

The new NatGeo series takes Lin and his team to a startling range of locations around the world, but they all share one thread.

“Each show might be about discovery but it also reveals something fundamental about our human experiences,” Lin told CleanTechnica. “Each city represents a different aspect of the human experience.”

Lin cited the example of the Picts, an Iron Age people who populated Scotland with far-flung tribal communities. When the Romans tried to invade, the Picts refused to cave in. Eventually Romans gave up and the Picts remained undefeated on their home turf.

How they did it remained a puzzle for many years, and little is still known about them today. With the aid of lidar technology, though, one thing became clear. Faced by a powerful enemy, the Picts withdrew from their remote communities and reassembled around forts.

“[This is] probably one of the greatest untold stories of resilience. The Romans were an unstoppable force, one of the greatest armies that ever existed, just bulldozing wherever they went,” said Lin. “The main lesson is that as they [the Picts] continued to resist. What allowed them to fight back was they came together and unified.”

Lidar & The Circular Economy Of The Future

Resilience is the key word. The global economy is sinking under the burden of its own waste as the impacts of climate change reach full bloom, but a more sustainable approach to human activity is also emerging as momentum grows to transition into a circular economy that emphasizes cycles of resource conservation over the linear model of extract-and-discard.

Lidar is beginning to play an important role in the circular economy, which brings us back around to Scotland. The Scottish waste management firm Levenseat recently announced a new system that enables it to recover more recyclable material before sending bulky waste to a waste-to-energy operation.

“The newly configured facility uses the latest technology to recover high levels of recyclable material from a complex waste stream. Resources such as wood, metal, plastics, and aggregates are separated, recovered, and recycled, extending their lifecycle,” the company explained.

By “latest technology” they meant lidar, as described in a case study of the facility published by the news organization Waste Management World on November 16. WMW noted that the former recycling operation was beset by inventory issues leading to safety concerns, disruptions, and inefficient processing, partly due to the constant movement of material through the operation.

The situation improved with the introduction of four lidar modules supplied by the German firm Blickfeld.

“This works by LiDAR sensors emitting several hundred thousand laser pulses per second across a large field of view, systematically scanning the surroundings. From this, 3D surface images are created, and a perception software accurately calculates the volume,” WMW explained.

“Workflows are now smoother, truck scheduling is more precise, processing machine utilization has been optimized, and processing delays have been minimized,” they added.

Other light-based technologies are also coming into play. One recent example is a new plastic-sorting system based on Raman spectroscopy, which deploys the interaction of light with chemical bonds to identify different materials.

In an interesting twist, the auto industry could help speed new circular economy technologies to the market. In addition to integrating more biobased and sustainable materials, auto makers are seeking innovations in end-of-life recovery systems.

Keep an eye on the new Car2Car consortium in Europe for upcoming news in that field. Headed up by BMW, the consortium is looking to improve the quality of recycled material by replacing manual labor with advanced processes.

“Today’s recycling processes involve a high degree of manual effort and result in a loss of material purity, meaning they are only economically viable for a very small number of vehicle components,” BMW explains.

“The integration of systems for optical and AI-assisted detection and sorting of reusable materials in the post-shredder process brings about a significant improvement in the quality and purity of aluminium, steel, glass, copper and plastic materials,” BMW adds, throwing in robotics for good measure.

Of course, putting less cars on the road would also solve the problem, but that’s a future solution. For the here and now, advanced recycling technologies will help shift the global economy into a more sustainable gear.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, and LinkedIn.

Photo: Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, Ph.D., demonstrates the use of lidar to reveal ancient structures previously hidden from view (courtesy of Blakeway Productions/National Geographic).


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3237 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey